The Knoxville area is suffering a great loss. Flossie McNabb, a co-owner of Carpe Librum Booksellers in Bearden, pulled me aside to give me the heartbreaking news that the only independent book store in the Knoxville area will close its doors the end of this year. She wanted to tell me the news personally before the official announcement. I have been a “constant reader,” what they call their regulars, since the store opened its doors six years ago. It’s always sad to see locally owned businesses disappear, but Carpe Librum’s closing is an especially devastating loss. It is the only independent book store in the Knoxville area. For the past six years, Carpe Librum has been an oasis for book lovers. The owners created a vibrant community through author appearances, book discussion groups, supporting local writers, and wonderful programs for readers of all ages.
Carpe Librum is one of the most attractively and tastefully designed bookstores I have ever seen. They have a gift for displaying books in such a way that compells you to stop and browse. What I especially appreciate is that the store space devotes one-third of its space to children’s and young adult books. There is an abundance of picture books, folktales, and poetry. The latest releases in young adult fiction and nonfiction are prominently displayed. They stock titles from small, independent publishers you will never see on the shelves in a chain store.
Since Carpe Librum announced its closing, more tragic news about independent booksellers in Tennessee has followed. Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville is going out of business, as will its store in Memphis. Davis-Kidd once also had a store in Knoxville but was unable to compete with big box retailers. An independent bookstore in Chattanooga is also closing its doors the end of this year. Beginning in 2011, Tennessee’s four largest cities will be without an independent bookseller.
The causes for Carpe Librum’s demise are similar to those of other independent booksellers forced out of business: a sluggish economy, the burgeoning popularity of e-readers, and an inability to compete with discounts offered by chain bookstores and amazon.com. I could have saved a few dollars buying my books at Barnes & Noble, Borders, or Books-a-Million, and a few more buying them from amazon.com. I spend my money at Carpe Librum because there is a cost to discounts that few people consider. To amazon.com, I am nothing more than a “cookie” full of data. To chain stores, I’m an anonymous customer purchasing a product. To Carpe Librum, I’m Ed, the eclectic, voracious reader who loves to talk about books.
I do not understand the attraction to e-readers. They are not environmentally sound—like all the electronic gadgets we currently embrace, the discards leave behind waste that cannot be recycled and toxic to the environment. The convenience argument carries little weight with me. I have never found it a hardship to carry a few paperback or even hardcover books in my travels, and flipping through the pages of newspaper has never caused me discomfort. I can easily wash the black ink from my hands with a little soap and water.
Any genuine lover of books knows that the bound book is a perfect technology. E-readers do not represent an evolution in reading technology. If they were, the makers of e-readers would not be trying so hard to mimic the “experience” of reading a bound book. Reading a digitized text on an illuminated screen is no substitute for or enhancement of the singular experience of reading a bound book.
Whatever alleged “value” an e-book may have, it cannot compensate for the loss of a community’s only independent bookseller. At Carpe Librum, I’m greeted by my first name. I know the owners and the employees by their first names. I feel a kinship with them. They share my passion for reading. They treasure books as valuable artifacts and works of art. We not only talk about books, we talk about our work, families, travels, hobbies and interests.
What I will miss most about Carpe Librum, besides the lovely people, is the serendipitous joy of browsing the beautiful displays and discovering wonderful books, new and old. I have visited independent bookstores in cities throughout the country, but I have seen few as aesthetically pleasing, warm, and inviting as Carpe Librum. Book lovers everywhere should mourn the loss of this community jewel.